Romney's top Hispanic surrogate: GOP must embrace immigration reform

Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Mitt Romney’s top Hispanic surrogate, is calling for the Republican Party to “modernize” and embrace comprehensive immigration reform in order to survive as a national party.

“We need to modernize. Modernization includes diversity. Obviously, immigration reform is part of that process of diversity,” he told The Hill on Tuesday. “We are the party of growth, of business, of entrepreneurship, of innovation. We cannot continue to be that without an effective immigration policy.”

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Gutierrez, who chaired Romney’s Hispanic Steering Committee during the GOP nominee’s presidential campaign, blames Romney’s rightward primary shift on immigration for his loss. Obama bested Romney among Hispanics, one of the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups, by a whopping 71 to 27 percent. That has led to calls from many prominent Republicans for the party to re-evaluate its position on immigration.

“The primary process has been taken over by the extremes,” Gutierrez lamented. “The process forced Gov. Romney to be on the extreme right during the primaries and then in the general he had to work his way back to the center. The primaries gave the opposition so many talking points to use against Gov. Romney.”

Gutierrez called his time as a Romney surrogate “very frustrating.”

“What I learned throughout this whole process is that we as a party cause a great deal of fear for Hispanics, and not just in Hispanics but other immigrants too,” he said. “I’d go on a Spanish-language show and defend the party, only to pick up the paper the next day and find some incredibly antiquated statements about immigrants from extremists in our party, things that almost sounded like they were from the 1920s. ... I was getting the question of self-deportation three days before the election. It never went away, even though the governor had moved and evolved and talked about a different position.”

The former Cabinet official for then-President George W. Bush said that better immigration policy alone could not fix things for the party — but without comprehensive reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the party would continue to struggle with Hispanics, Asian-Americans and other fast-growing populations.

He said immigration reform is an “economic imperative” for the country.

“It’s a strategic issue for the 21st century. It’s not a tactical political issue,” he said. “When I came to this country in 1960 as a refugee from Cuba, the one thing I remember is how welcome I felt, how much people wanted me to succeed. I think of these students, these ‘DREAMers,’ and the courage and will it takes to continue to study 18 hours a day and get good grades even though they don’t know if they’re going to be deported the next day. Those are the kind of people we want and have made this country. We need to accept that and understand if we get immigration right, the 21st century is ours. If we get it wrong ... what a shame.”

This story was posted at 2:42 p.m. and updated at 7:07 p.m.